After controversial autopsy attempts, medical examiner resigns

St. Louis County Medical Examiner Thomas Uncini has resigned, a month after a controversy erupted over his decisions to perform autopsies on two Native Americans killed in car accidents in neighboring Carlton County.

Uncini, who has had the job since 1998, told county officials "he is no longer interested in serving in that capacity," according to a letter St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray and County Sheriff Ross Litman sent county commissioners on Tuesday.

Litman told the county board that Uncini informed him of his intentions within the past couple of weeks. Litman told the board "he's not in a position to give reasons why," and Uncini refused an interview request.

The county board agreed to temporarily extend Uncini's contract through June 30, until the county can hire a new medical examiner.

In early February, Uncini pushed to perform autopsies on Native Americans who died in car accidents in Carlton County.

Mushkoob Aubid, a 65-year-old member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, died Feb. 7, a day after his car veered off a northern Minnesota highway and struck a utility pole. Autumn Martineau, a 24-year-old member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, died Feb. 10 in another crash.

Both families were incensed. They practice a traditional form of Ojibwe religion known as Midewiwin, in which the cutting of a body is considered desecration and interferes with a four-day ritual performed when someone dies.

The families obtained last-minute emergency orders from a Carlton County judge to have the bodies returned without autopsies.

"We're hoping that this can be a new chapter in St. Louis County at least with regard to how Native people and people of all religious backgrounds are treated when their loved ones pass on," said Emily Johnson, strategic initiatives coordinator for the Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Uncini, who operates Lakeland Pathology, has contracts with St. Louis County and three other northern Minnesota counties to serve as medical examiner. There's no word yet whether Uncini also plans to resign as medical examiner there, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler said.

The Mille Lacs Band is pushing a change to state law to make it easier to object to certain autopsies on religious grounds, unless the procedure is needed for criminal or public health reasons.

Under state law, medical examiners have sole discretion to determine whether it is in the public interest to perform an autopsy when a death occurs from unnatural causes.

St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson said he supports the effort to change the law. But he worries that a family's choice to decline an autopsy could potentially "get in the way of justice."

Nelson said Uncini provided a tremendous service to the county.

"If Dr. Uncini and his crew made errors along the path," Nelson said, "I believe they did so with the best interests of the communities involved, and following the statute."

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